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"Where Have All the Good Guys Gone?" - an Angel essay

Sunday 18 March 2012, by Webmaster

In a city where a demonic beast can darken the sun, where the most prestigious law firm caters exclusively to demons, vampires and other hellish spawn and where a goddess can take control of the entire human race just by smiling on television, only the mightiest champions have any hope of defeating the darkness. On Angel, these mighty champions are Faith, Wesley, Spike and Angel himself. The rest of the team are all good guys—they just don’t have the same clout. Whether it’s Wesley working his magic, Faith hunting Angelus, Spike dueling the Reaper or Angel taking on the Senior Partners themselves, we know that these four will always find a way to win. We’d back them to beat any evil they go against. What makes them the champions they are? They’ve all been bad guys.

In Angel’s world, the only way to become a champion is to start out as the enemy—or at the very least, sleep with the enemy for a while. Faith enters Angel’s world as that scariest of bad girls, a Slayer run amok, ready to hire on as a paid assassin or commit murder, torture and mayhem just for the thrill of it. Wesley first shows his dark side under the influence of Billy Blim’s woman-hating magic, when he becomes a terrifying sexual predator stalking Fred (“Billy,” A3-6); he then plunges into the dark by betraying Angel, kidnapping Connor and having an affair with Lilah. Spike has only just regained his soul and his conscience, after more than a century of vampire evil that earned him the nickname William the Bloody. And Angel is the poster boy for bad guys turned good. Not only did he live a century and a half as Angelus, the most vicious vampire in history, he still carries Angelus with him every day—a demonic split personality just waiting for its chance to emerge.

Naturally, having been evil isn’t what makes these four champions of good. Each of them had to decide to walk away from the dark side: to admit they had been evil and to start living like good guys. And that was only the first step. To become champions, they had to do more than turn their backs on the dark. They had to dedicate their lives to fighting it. Faith and Wesley both take this final step naturally: Wesley was brought up to be a Watcher, instilled at an early age with the kind of dedication to Goodness (however misguided the Watcher’s Council might have been at times) most people never achieve, and Faith, as a Slayer, was born with the calling to serve. Spike, however, fights the good fight at first only for Buffy’s sake. He doesn’t truly commit himself to the war until his encounter with the mad Slayer Dana forces him to look at his own past and recognize that his crimes were truly evil (“Damage,” A511). And he’s moving quickly, compared to Angel. For a hundred years after Angel regained his soul, he hid in the shadows, tormented by guilt for his crimes and doing only whatever good deeds came directly in his path (saving puppies, rescuing submarines, convincing other people they were better off leaving him alone). He had to see the heroism of another champion, Buffy, before he could take the final step of dedicating his own life to helping her cause.

Former monsters make much better champions than the average, pure-as-the-driven-snow good guy. (Even Slayer powers are rooted in the demonic.) Because they know the dark side intimately, they are uniquely qualified to fight it.

Evil’s power is not so much what it can do to your physical body— though what it can do is still nothing to laugh at. Its real strength is its ability to overwhelm—with pain, with terror, with hopelessness. Angel and his comrades are not cowed by the horrors of the dark, because they’ve been those horrors. They know exactly what evil can do because they’ve done it themselves. When Spike, in his bad boy days, hires the psychopathic vampire Marcus to torture Angel, both he and Marcus expect Angel to break. They should know better: Angel has all the memories of Angelus, who devoted his life to torture and terror for over a century. Marcus can only cause Angel physical pain, while Angelus could drive a young woman mad with horror. Angel’s grasp of torture is so far above his torturer’s that he can even make Marcus believe he’s breaking long enough to get his feet on a handy stake (“In the Dark,” A1-3).

Those who have been evil and turned away from it also have a unique way of destroying it: they know how to lead others along the same path. They can see the potential for good in (some of) the bad guys and bring them to redemption—and the day every bad guy becomes a good guy is the day the champions can lay down their swords and stakes.

When it comes to redemption, Angel has reached out to more bad guys than everyone else put together, because he understands not only what it means to act out your pain on other people, but what it’s like to be in love with your own cruelty—and what it’s like to hate yourself for it. He has a couple of lifetimes worth of experience in both. Sometimes he succeeds, as he does with Faith and, before she was re-vamped, Darla; sometimes he fails, as he does with Lindsey and initially with Connor (who is saved not because he chooses to reject the darkness but because Angel buys him a life without darkness; only after he has lived this life is he able to turn his back on the memories of the old life).

For the same reason, when Angelus must be captured so that Angel’s soul can be restored, Wesley is certain that no one but Faith can do it without killing him.

FAITH: There’s no way I’m giving up on him.

WESLEY: That’s why it had to be you. (“Salvage,” A4-13)

The Slayer whom Angel saved from her dark side is the only one who will be totally committed to rescuing Angel from his own.

But there’s a more ominous reason that makes Angel’s fantastic four the champions they are: they all fight darkness with darkness. Not only do they know all the weapons of evil—violence, terror, black magic, deception—they don’t hesitate to use them. We expect all four to be awesome, kick-ass fighters, and so they are; each can fight any number of bad guys single-handed, wield any weapon, take on any monster or demon.

But more than that, they fight dirty. Faith captures Angelus by letting him bite her—after she has injected herself with a dose of the mystic drug Orpheus, which knocks him out cold within seconds of his first gulp (“Release,” A4-14, and “Orpheus,” A4-15). Angel pays back a treacherous employee by handing him over to a restaurateur who will carve him up to be eaten alive (“Unleashed,” A5-3). And Wesley gets information from a junkie by driving a dagger through her shoulder (“Release,” A4-14). Good guys aren’t supposed to do things like that, even to the bad guys. They’re supposed to treat their prisoners decently, fight the villains face to face in fair combat and turn human criminals over to the law.

This kind of heroism brings up a moral ambiguity the size of California. If Angel’s champions use the methods of the bad guys to fight for good, can they still be champions? While Buffy only touches on the ambivalence of the Slayer’s violent fight against evil, Angel plunges right in. Our hero himself is the darkest of the dark champions, whose vicious alter ego is not merely the demon who moves in when his soul moves out, but an integral part of himself. In his very first scene, we see Angel thirst for human blood, and since then we’ve seen him fire his friends for opposing his dark plans (“Reunion,” A2-10), jump into the sack with his vampire lover Darla (“Reprise,” A2-15) and even deliberately raise Angelus to help him fight the Beast (“Awakening,” A4-10). Talk about using the dark to fight the dark!

The challenge here is that the good guys still have a bad guy inside. The champions still have their darker moments: Angel locks a party of lawyers into a room with a hungry Darla and Drusilla (“Reunion,” A210); Wesley shoots an underling who didn’t get the message that the whole office should be trying to save Fred (“A Hole in the World,” A515) and stabs Gunn when he finds out Gunn was inadvertently responsible for Fred’s death (“Shells,” A5-16). And the twist of logic that allows our heroes to use the tools of evil for the side of good is dangerous in and of itself. It doesn’t only convince the characters; it can convince the audience as well. When Wesley skewers the junkie in “Release” (A4-14) to make her talk, a part of us may be shocked—but part of us is also cheering him on for doing whatever it takes to save Angel.

In the fifth season, Joss Whedon and his team bring this moral ambivalence to center stage, when they make Angel the CEO of the L.A. branch of the company from Hell, Wolfram & Hart. Now, at last, the characters are arguing every week about whether it’s right to use the methods of evil to fight evil. Angel may terminate—with a sword—any employees who think it’s okay to massacre humans on the job or off, but he also has to kiss up to demon warlords, win court cases for the nastiest demon gangsters and make a profit for the Senior Partners.

Is it really possible for Angel and his comrades to fight the good fight from within the belly of the beast, and use the beast’s own teeth and claws as their weapons? More than that, is it possible to do so without compromising their moral higher ground? The show’s final episodes take Angel straight into that beast, as he becomes, at least as far as the rest of the group is concerned, the kind of creature Wolfram & Hart likely wanted him to become. He sacrifices a baby to win the favor of a demon overlord, ruins the life of a senatorial candidate with accusations of pedophilia and kills Drogyn, who is not only a mystical guardian on the side of good but also a friend. And he does it all to gain access to the most evil secret society this side of the dimension portal. Until he lets his friends, and the audience, in on his plan, he is utterly indistinguishable from Holland Manners, or Lindsey, or anyone else he’s ever fought against.

In the end, the baby is rescued, and Angel has succeeded in bringing Wolfram & Hart and the forces behind it to their knees . . . at least temporarily. But some things cannot be undone, like Drogyn’s death. Was it worth it? When the finale ends, leaving Wesley dead and Angel and Spike, with Gunn and Illyria, bracing to fight an onslaught of demons, that question is not yet answered.

Would a sixth season of Angel have resolved the moral ambivalence of having heroes who fight evil with evil’s own methods? I think it never intended to. Because Angel isn’t about resolving that ambivalence; it’s about the struggle of living with it. Angel’s real theme is redemption. It’s about bad guys becoming good guys, about making up for all the wrong that’s been done, about living as if you are a hero and a champion, even though your entire resume says you’re a monster. It’s about making the choice to fight the dark.